I express my appreciation for the opportunity to raise this Adjournment debate. Normally, I would not seek an Adjournment debate for an individual case, but the history of this case is one of almost monumental incompetence. The lack of humanity demonstrated by Government Departments has been so gross and protracted that I felt that I had to pursue the matter to this stage.
Before I go any further, I should mention that this morning I received a letter from the Under-Secretary on the matter. The letter is courteous and helpful, and she apologised graciously on behalf of the Department for the way in which the case has been conducted. She has accelerated an appeal and given dates. Indeed, she has anticipated the outcome of the debate; the letter may foreshorten our proceedings somewhat. I wish to thank her publicly for responding in this way and being helpful to the family.
None the less, the case has many lessons. It would be right to review the history, simply to place on the record what has happened. In essence, the problems arose from nothing more complicated than the transmission of papers for an immigration appeal from the Senegal embassy to the appellate authority in the UK. The transmission of papers has taken three years and involved seven Ministers—two from the Foreign Office, three from the Home Office and two from the Lord Chancellor's Department—and correspondence with 10 Downing street. Today, it appears that we finally have a resolution to the problem. It is not the final resolution, because I do not know and cannot anticipate the appeal decision, but at least the bureaucratic procedures have been dealt with.
I also wish to raise the issue publicly, rather than leave it with the Minister's letter, because it involves a wider foreign policy issue. The Prime Minister is going to Sierra Leone on Saturday. In general, the Government and the Prime Minister have acquitted themselves with enormous credit on the Sierra Leone crisis, in which British troops have been involved. In many ways, it has been a success story for British foreign policy. However, a dark underside is the way in which the British Government have dealt with the cases of individuals from Sierra Leone. This particularly appalling case must be set against the highly creditable role that the Government and, in particular, the Prime Minister have played.
Let me explain how the problem arose. The Mason family lived in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where Mr. Mason was a prison officer. About three years ago, the family went into the interior on a business trip. That was a time when the Revolutionary United Front rebels were gathering strength. On the way back, the family were stopped by the rebels, who took their car and their possessions and left them destitute by the roadside. They had to walk for two days to get back to Freetown.
On the way back, Mr. Mason's daughter Victoria, then 18 or 19, was raped by RUF rebels. Unfortunately that seems to have been standard procedure in Sierra Leone during the civil war; it was something many young women experienced. When the family arrived back in Freetown there was disorder in the township. Some of the rebels and their friends gathered around the house of the Mason family because they knew of Mr. Mason's background in the prison service. He was called out into the street. He refused to come, knowing the fate that awaited him. He was then burnt alive in front of his family.
Over the next few hours and days the family witnessed some appalling scenes. The RUF rebels were in the habit of taking people and cutting off either their whole arm or half of it. Many of the Masons' friends and neighbours suffered this experience. During that terrible period an elderly mother died of shock. The rest of the family managed to escape to the football stadium where they at least had refuge and some food to keep them alive. They then fled to Guinea, the neighbouring country, which refused to accept them. From there they went to Dakar in Senegal, where they took refuge in a slum colony in the early months of 1999.
At that point the family consisted of Mrs. Mason, her three sons, ranging in age from early twenties to a young boy of seven, who is now nine, and the daughter who was raped and was by now carrying the rapist's child. They sought help from the UNHCR and the British Red Cross to survive in Senegal. That is where I came in and it became a matter for the British Government, because Mrs. Mason's sister, Etha Brace, is one of my constituents. She runs a successful, well-known restaurant serving west African food in Twickenham, and she received a message from her sister asking for help. They had not seen each other for many years but they were very close during childhood.
The sister did what she could to help. She said, "Why not come to Twickenham? We have a restaurant which is only operating at half capacity because we don't have any staff." There is virtually no unemployment in my constituency and there are certainly no unemployed people with a speciality in west African cooking. She told her sister, "Come to my restaurant. We will give your family work so you won't be dependent on benefits. There is work here and I have a spare flat. We have plenty of accommodation and we can look after you".
The family were encouraged to apply to the British embassy for visas to settle with the Brace family in Twickenham and did so. At this point the story becomes complicated because of the turbulence in that environment. Although a democratic country, Senegal was then in the early stages of an election campaign in which there was a lot of violence and intimidation, and extortion of refugees. The environment was exceedingly unsettled. When the Brace family sent £1,000 to pay for visas, the Masons were tricked by a Member of Parliament in Senegal who presented himself as having been particularly close to the embassy; he turned out to be a confidence trickster. The Masons then had their passports and money stolen, and they were offered their passports back for a large bribe. Their whole experience was horrific.
Eventually, after some weeks they managed to apply to the embassy for settlement visas and were turned down by the entry clearance officer, a Mr. Sean Burns. Two arguments were advanced; first, that he was not satisfied that there were exceptional personal circumstances. In view of their history that struck me as extraordinary. Throughout the correspondence over three years, Ministers have kept repeating that phrase; they are not satisfied that exceptional circumstances apply to this family. That seems bizarre to me and almost insulting. Secondly, the embassy would not accept that the family could be solely dependent on the sister in Twickenham, although this could demonstrably be shown to be true.
I became involved and asked for the case to be re-examined. That was done, and my appeal was rejected by the entry clearance officer at the embassy in Senegal in early 1999. The family appealed and asked to have its visa rejection heard through the proper appellate process, under which the entry clearance officer has to send to the appeal directorate in London an explanatory note that will form the basis of the appeal. However, nothing happened. After six months, the documents had not appeared in London. The members of the family in Twickenham were by now so distraught that they went to Senegal to find out what was happening there and to explain the position to the British embassy.
What the Brace family found horrified them. First, the entry clearance officer showed no sense of urgency and put the six-month delay in sending the documents down to the fact that he was busy. They found that their relatives were utterly destitute. The three boys were sharing a pair of shoes, trousers and a shirt so they could not all go out at the same time. The situation was desperate. The Braces tried to provide the Masons with money and help and appealed to the embassy to speed up the processing of the papers.
Months went by and, again, nothing happened. The message from the embassy was that the official was too busy to deal with the problem. As far as I can establish, the papers did not progress beyond the desk of the entry clearance officer in Senegal for the best part of a year, although some of the facts are a little murky. I became sufficiently concerned that in May 2000—over a year after the original application—I got in touch with the then Minister, Mr. Vaz at the Foreign Office, and asked him to intervene. Although this is a sorry tale, he showed great courtesy and efficiency and genuine compassion. I know that he is in trouble in the House for other reasons, but the way in which he dealt with this matter was exemplary and reflected considerable credit on the Government. He wrote to the Lord Chancellor's Department to ask whether the appeal process could not be moved on more quickly. It was then discovered that the papers had still not reached there. Were they in Senegal or somewhere else?
After a long search, it was established in August 2000—eighteen months after the original application—that the papers were neither in Senegal nor in the Lord Chancellor's Department; they were in the Immigration and Nationality Department of the Home Office. I received a letter from the then Minister, Mrs. Roche, who was both apologetic and gracious. She accepted that mistakes had been made and that there had been unacceptable delays. She also said that the matter would be dealt with urgently. However, nothing happened.
Time passed. Nine months later, in April 2001, a letter was received from Lord Bassam at the Home Office, saying that the papers had been lost there, but not explaining how or why, and that nothing further could be done because there were no papers. I wrote to follow that up. Five months later, in August 2001, I received a reply from a person who had clearly not bothered to look at the file and was completely misinformed about the background to the case. At that point, I wrote to the present Minister. I might have over-egged the pudding a little in that I wrote an extremely rude letter drawing her attention to the whole sorry history, with which she has only been involved at a late stage. That is why we are here today.
I am aware that the story has moved on and that the Minister has acted, but it is important to have the story on the record. It reflects appallingly on different bits of the British Government—particularly on the embassy in Senegal and its officials, who were callous and inefficient in equal measure. The Home Office was also inefficient. At least it had the excuse that it was dealing with files rather than with real people, but, none the less, its inefficiency was inexcusable.
Three years on, we are dealing with the prospect of an appeal against a visa decision. I realise that the situation in Sierra Leone has now moved on, but the family are still terrified after what happened to them and are clinging to the possibility that they may be able to come and stay with their family in Twickenham. I acknowledge that that is not something for the Minister to decide because there is an appeals process, but I am grateful to have had the opportunity to put on record that sorry tale.
I am extremely grateful that Dr. Cable wrote me a rude letter because it helped me to realise that something very wrong was happening with this case, which is one of many thousands that cross my desk. It also enabled me to examine closely what had happened.
I begin by offering my unreserved apologies to the applicant and her family for the delay and distress that has been caused, and to apologise to the hon. Gentleman for the fact that some of his inquiries about the progress of the case received inaccurate replies from my predecessors and, initially, from me in my letter of
I and my officials in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate are deeply embarrassed at the string of errors that have made these apologies so necessary. The mistakes were not made deliberately, as the hon. Gentleman was gracious enough to accept, but unfortunately, it was one of those cases, among the hundreds of thousands that we deal with every year, in which everything that can go wrong does, not only at the embassy but, subsequently, in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate. For that I am very sorry.
The only thing to do in such cases is to apologise, which I have done, and to do everything possible to try to put things right. We also need to learn lessons for the future. The first of those actions has already been taken, as the hon. Gentleman was kind enough to acknowledge. The appeal papers are now with the Immigration Appellate Authority, where they should have been a long time ago, and dates have been set for a preliminary hearing this month and a substantive hearing in April. Of course, that in no way compensates for the delays that the applicant has experienced or the additional stress that must have been caused.
I should also say that the examination of what went wrong in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate has highlighted several problems involving entry clearance officers in particular. Some have already been addressed and will not occur in subsequent cases and others are being addressed now. I hope that that sort of oversight will never happen again. As a Minister, it is especially difficult to discover that one's replies to other Members of Parliament, signed in good faith, have not been acted on. The loophole in the Department, whereby there is no system for ensuring that ministerial replies are acted on, is being closed.
I do not want to spend time on the details of the case, as the hon. Member for Twickenham has already outlined it. None of that is in doubt or an issue between us. He is right to say that the process of appeals against entry clearance decisions from overseas is that they are lodged with the entry clearance officer and passed to the IND for the papers to be checked, copied and assembled into an appeal bundle and passed to the appellate authority, with a copy to the appellant's legal representative. The appellate authority then lists the case for hearing. Both the delays at the embassy and the unfortunate delays at IND meant that this case was not progressed.
I hope that the hon. Member for Twickenham will accept my apology and my reassurances that I am doing all that I can to ensure that this loophole for entry clearance cases is closed. I can assure him that I will not be signing any other letter to an hon. Member on an entry clearance case before I have checked that the matter has been actioned by officials in my Department.
The case has been unacceptable in many respects. I did my best, as soon as it came to my close attention, to ensure that progress was made. The hon. Gentleman has been quite gracious and correct in saying that I cannot influence the outcome of the case, but at least we have ensured that action is taken. Although that does not compensate for what happened, we will at least be in a position for a decision to be made on the case in the not-too-distant future.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that we will ensure that it does not happen again in other cases. I also hope that he will accept not only my apologies but my congratulations, first for writing me a nasty letter and secondly for raising the issue in Westminster Hall, which has given me an opportunity to explain what went wrong and set out what we are doing to ensure that it will not happen again.